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Getting Older

Life has begun to feel like I am sort of auditioning for one long YouTube video. I’ll be alone, say, in an empty windowless corridor or in the bathroom. But when I speak and move, I edit myself as though I am being watched, More specifically, I am picturing myself as if I am on film. Even down to my thoughts – often, I’ll be talking to myself in my head and if mid-thought I stumble over my virtual words, or think the wrong word, my brain will go back and re-run the thought as if I were saying it aloud. To an audience. Why can’t I be myself with myself any more?

I’m not quite sure how I let this happen. I’m not exactly a performer, there is certainly no unrealised desire in me to be famous, to be seen. I prefer to be alone. You could argue, quite rightly, that writing a blog is a performance. But clearly the appeal for this writer is that I can always edit.

tv sketch editI’m sure I can’t be the only one who has noticed themselves doing similar. Ringing any bells? Although I’ve been thinking about this only recently, I know it’s something I have been doing for a long while. And I blame the television! A pretty easy target. But, worryingly – or rather, not worryingly at all in this day and age – my TV is always on. It literally is a member of the family, a friend. Well, come on, friends – we have several. And so with 30 years of such indoctrination is it any wonder that we are constantly putting on a show. We’ve been practising all our lives – almost trained to act like we’re being watched. Like it or not, it’s not just the actors behind the screen – somehow, we have all become performers.

It must be even more intense for the younger lot or perhaps – not that they will have noticed. It will have been this way for their whole lives. For this generation TV isn’t so much influential as dictatorial. A guide for a life in front of the screen. Even on the most basic level, there’s always the threat of someone taking your photo. Then there are the bigger, inescapable eyes of Big Brother, watching our almost every move. And now, with social media, we are always being watched.

It’s exhausting! And not just the show, remembering to check your words and your outfits. No, there is the vast mental effort needed to consider, and the impact this performance has on our self-esteem. Our ideas about life in general. With so much visual competition there’s a lot to learn from, to inspire and challenge us to improve and grow, yes. But we have all set up an outer image of ourselves – the persona we want the outside world to recognise us as, the persona we want to convince ourselves that we are, even in private – and how can we constantly live up to that? It’s as though we are measuring up to a hologram.

I recognise this because I know it is something I do in myself. As a teenager I had created a persona that I never let myself switch off from, even once the bedroom door was closed and it was just me (and the TV), because I wanted it to be real. Laughably, that aspirational figure was very much based on Bridget Jones. Somehow, the constant pretence made it more believable. It was comforting to pretend.

Remember those poignant words of William W. Purkey? You gotta dance like there’s nobody watching. I’m wondering, are we actually capable of this anonymity anymore? Or has the mantra turned on its head? You’ve got to dance like somebody is watching, because there most likely is – even if it’s just in your head.

I came across an article recently about what was referred to as the great illusion of the self. Of what little of it I understood, there seems to be a growing argument among psychologists that we – or rather ‘you’ – are not the person you thought you were, underneath it all. And with this in mind, maybe there isn’t any real harm in pretending. Besides, what greater comfort is there?

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Here it is upon us again. New Year’s Eve. That went fast didn’t it?

Rather than feeling daunted, I find I am quite addicted to the hopefulness of setting goals – something many of you will no doubt be torturing yourselves with today. Why must we make it such an ordeal?

Last year’s resolution was to ‘be crafty’. I’m sat here now, one year later, guiltily glancing at the Make Your Own Pompoms set that still lies untouched in a Bloomindales bag on the floor – well, at least they have enjoyed a chic 12 months.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t really have the imagination to be imaginative. I need a tour guide. It was the hardy estate-agent-cum-craftswoman, Kirstie Allsopp, who guided me into the world of pompom crafts. I couldn’t have done it alone.

Despite this handicap I think it important, really important, that we let our creativity run free every once in a while – even those of us aren’t quite gifted enough to create without a kit. Or without copying someone else. I love copying. I did it religiously as a child and I do it still. But what’s wrong with that? All I’m doing is flexing a muscle. And while that muscle gets some exercise, the others in my brain can switch off. With this in mind I think my plan for 2015 will be, simply, To Play.

We forget to play as we become adults. It’s not our fault – we don’t have the time when there are so many more pressing, important and boring things to attend to. Things that absorb all of our time and head space. But this is exactly why remembering how to play is so important.

Remember the invigoration that came from childhood play? The total abandon. The thrill at discovery. This is the stuff that keeps us going. Helps to fill the hole that creeps open as we age and the fun sort of dries up, becomes very much expected.

Of course, there are those humans for whom surprise is their raison d’etre. The kind that throw themselves at challenges in far flung locations, like white water rafting in places that have… I don’t know… white water? Those who do something noble like volunteering in Africa.

But for the less adventurous and admittedly more lazier and, well, timid of us – there is play. Good old-fashioned messing about. MFI springs to mind. Yes, the furniture store. I’ve never visited an MFI as an adult, but as a child – oh! The fun my sister and I had! Allowed to roam free around the store as my parents browsed kitchen units stressfully. We acted out mini melodramas in secluded kitchens. Hid from the adults in bedroom wardrobes. Fondled the pretend fruit. Bounced on the beds when no-one was looking. Pretended to be pretend home furniture. It was such a treat, going to MFI. It is within the walls of this store only that I have imagined being a housewife.

Whenever life gets tough, or incredibly dull, I think back to those gentle MFI adventures. Go and hide in the bedroom for a while, behind the door. Play out a little story in my head.

Play must lurk like this in my subconscious somewhere, because without me even realising what I was doing for Christmas this year I got my boyfriend stuff that will enable him to make his own watch. Luckily, he does actually want to make his own watch. Now.

There he is in the corner, soldering wires together. Having a blast. Bigger projects are already emerging – a torch. More ambitiously, a light up table. Who knows where his imagination will take him.

And that’s the point isn’t it – why not wake up your inner child next year? Play up – you deserve it.

I did something I haven’t done in a long, long time on Friday. I went to a gig. (For a second there, I was tempted to call it a concert.)

I don’t know about you, but I’ve certainly noticed that I have a changing relationship with music the older I get. When I was younger, music was everything. I was totally consumed by it. I defined myself through it – I don’t know how I’d have got to be the person I am today without music in my life. I’m not talking about actually making music here – I’m much too lazy for that, even as my younger more energised self. Just listening was enough.

But then you grow up. You work out who you are (ish), come to some kind of resolution. You find yourself settled, stabilised. And in this new, more adult existence, music isn’t so central – in fact, it’s veritably on the sidelines. Relegated to muzak. Something that gets rolled out only when it’s needed, for grown-up social occasions, times when you need to make an impression. Impress on others – and yourself – that you’ve still got it. I suppose it’s maybe easier if you have children – you can live through their music, press them for trendy bands in an emergency. No longer is music the provider of heady relief as it was in your youth. Well, not for me at least.

And it makes me feel very sad. I’ve still got the tinnitus at least but I mourn those days, that me. I would lie in bed into the small hours with a pair of headphones plugged into my (much-loved) hi-system. It had a multiple CD selector system, so I could load it up with 5 albums, pre-set which tracks I wanted to listen to, and just lay back in the dark and live out a life in my head to these very personal soundtracks.

 music notes 2

When it was time for me to go to work (humph) I always had my portable radio with me for the bus rides. Then my cassette player. Then my (wholly unreliable) Sony disc-man. Before long (although a lot later than the rest of the world, I’m stubborn with technology) the iPod made it’s way into my life – and has never left, still getting me through my daily commute.

It was all so much effort back then. But it never felt like it. I was at gigs all the time, sometimes more than once a week. And on weeknights. It meant I spent a large chunk of my life holed up inside a massive concrete dive of a building – split over three floors, the old Carling Academy in Birmingham’s Dale End (the street even sounds seedy) looked and felt very much like the multi-storey car park opposite, but that was all part of its charm. Many a happy hot, sticky evening has been spent in that dark cave (sadly now closed), and there will always be a special place in my heart devoted to its memory. I’ve kept all my old gig tickets, pointlessly. I absolutely cannot throw them out.

All the things that would prevent you from actually going to a gig now were not a problem then;  standing for hours, holding your coat, not being able to see anything, sticky floors, pushy people, too loud, too hot, too late. Of course you occasionally toy with the idea, now, of going to see a band when one you really, really, definitely like comes on tour…but you know deep down you’re never really going to go. You tentatively suggest it to friends regardless, pretending to yourself, but you know what response is coming – exactly the same thing you’d say if they had suggested it to you. Hmmm, it’s a bit expensive, especially with the booking fee too. Oh, it’s on a Thursday night?!

But although the flame is somewhat diminished, I hope it never dies out. Recent gig attendance would suggest not. By the way, if you haven’t heard of Lucius you should check them out (I’ve done some of the work there for you, you’re welcome). They are amazing. But what made you go to see them, I hear you ask? The clincher – it was on a Friday. That’s an acceptable non-school night. And it was in Liverpool – who’d turn down an excuse to visit Liverpool?

Is it me or are horror films more, well, horrific these days? There’s no denying that classics of the horror canon such as The Exorcist and The Shining are, obviously, disturbing. The teen slashers from my own era, Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer etc, might be a little on the light side but they don’t exactly shy away from blood and terror either. But now, something’s changed.

I used to love all this stuff, practically growing up on a diet of horror. I couldn’t get enough of the Goosebumps books, quickly graduating to Point Horror and then on to Stephen King in my early teens. I’d loiter in the deathly quiet of the (surprisingly well-stocked) Adult Horror aisle of my little local library after school, sometimes for hours. It was a day of pure joy when a new book arrived on the shelves. I remember a particularly gruesome tome about a trucker who turned into a massive human-eating hog who terrorised a small town (note to self – must Google this…).

They were all American, these novels (well, it was the 90s). Big blockbusters of books in a world of highways, dusty towns and malls. And I totally immersed myself in it. I even wrote my own horror stories for a time. Then we got cable TV – hurray! – and I suddenly had access to hundreds of horror films, and that’s when my journey became audio visual. Silence of the Lambs, The Blair Witch Project, Rosemary’s Baby, Alien, The Poltergeist. My relationship with the genre endured for many happy years.

But then I made the mistake of watching Saw. I’m pretty sure my mother recommended it to me as well (alarming in itself). It was 2004, we had a pirate copy (I know, sorry) – the picture so grainy and the sound so poor that I had to sit on the floor right in front of the TV to watch it. There I was, numb-limbed on the carpet, in the house on my own (classic schoolgirl error, almost as bad as me running upstairs) in a total, stunned, crumpled mess.

I remained in that position for a good long while after the credits stopped rolling – but I’ve never fully recovered. I haven’t watched a horror film since. Really*. I’ve tried. I gave The Descent a go (on another recommendation from my mother – you’d think I’d learn), but had to give up ten minutes in.

Of course total avoidance is impossible – sometimes I’ll catch bits of films when I’m channel surfing, and immediately wish I hadn’t. Unexpected trailers are a struggle. And now horror has started filtering through to my relationship with television, too. I love a good TV drama, especially ones based around crime. But as they too become increasingly more violent, I find I am unable to watch. I literally sit there with my hands over my eyes. Press mute. More recently, just change the channel. It’s meant I’ve had to give up on some series which I have loved for years – Silent Witness and Luther have both bitten the dust.

Is it just me? Have I become a highly sensitive, over-emotional bag of nerves? Or is it the horror? Has horror gone too far? Can horror go too far? Isn’t that kind of it’s point? I accept that, as with most things, you have to keep upping the game in order to keep things fresh. But to what limits does horror have to go to?

I suppose when I was on my own horror journey I was forever upping the stakes as well – young adult vampire fiction progressed to Stephen King, which in turn progressed to teen slashers, to 70s porn horror, and then somewhere along the line I just reached my limit whilst the industry churned on. Now, as an outsider, I feel the culture of the genre has changed beyond all recognition. What once was niche is now the norm. Human torture games, rape – it’s a new kind of horror. Less about giving you chills, making you jump – innocent thrills, almost – more about turning your stomach, throwing you into the cesspit of the human condition. Total depravity on a whole new scale and, for me, beyond the point of watchable.

Although people evidently do go and see them – but who? And why? I know tastes change as you get older – like I never used to like avocados, and now I do. I used to like being scared, but now I don’t. Have I just forgotten what it’s like?

I understand that within all of us there is a grim fascination with horror, if not an actual enjoyment of it. But I have neither the equipment nor the will to face up to horror any longer – there is enough of it in the real world to deal with, never mind having it confronting you in full-on 3D surround sound after a hard day’s work.

As an aside: I accept not all contemporary horror fils are in this violent vein. If anyone has any suggestions of something they recommend, let me know

*I haven’t watched a pirated film since either – gold star for me

Ever bought a magazine for yourself as a treat? Of course you have. Perhaps something a little silly, like a celebrity gossip magazine? Yes.

What about a bigger treat – something from the next shelf up? No, no – not the top shelf. The fashion glossies – big thick spines, richly smooth pages. Most of which are just crammed full of adverts, but gorgeous ones.

It’s nice to get expensive magazines every now and again, isn’t it – to perk up the week. You just need it sometimes. But what if you wake up one morning and realise you have in fact subscribed to all of them?

I am 100% guilty of being seduced by magazines. I am a grown woman who pays through the nose for reams upon reams of things she can’t afford, and places she can’t afford to travel to. I just can’t seem to help myself.

And I really am old enough to know better – I know how real life works now (I think). I consider myself a media savvy girl – I regularly critique adverts out loud when watching the television, much to the annoyance of my fella.

So why the hell am I an Elle Decoration subscriber? I don’t even decorate. The bathroom floor is yet to be tiled – that’s three years of concrete. Yet here I am, flicking through pages and pages of vintage Moroccan tiles and bespoke marble. I can’t even muster the energy to browse through the Topps Tiles website (most tedious experience ever), let alone take up any of the tips and eye-wateringly expensive products featured in those glossy pages.

I feel a little ashamed of my little habit. Like I have revealed I enjoy walking around the flat in my boyfriend’s pants (I don’t. Plus, it doesn’t really sound as seedy this way around, does it? More like I’m really on-trend and will be borrowing his jumpers next. I have been known to do that. Maybe it’s a slippery slope? Anyway.)

I know it’s all supposed to a bit of fun – a guilty pleasure, like chocolates are for other people. Or shoes. So why do I feel so uncomfortable about it?

I think I just don’t want to admit the truth to myself – that I secretly still harbour the ridiculous so-called ‘lifestyle’ aspirations that I did as a young girl. First it was fashion magazines – totally standard for a young woman. Fashion is great. But now that I’m venturing into home interiors it’s like I’m subconsciously nesting. And I am annoyed with myself – like a big predictable cliché I am following the path laid out for me by these marketeers. Next it’ll be Woman & Home. Easy Living. Then food magazines (that concept does sound quite appealing…they’ve clearly got me pegged.)

This love affair with magazines all started with the women’s lifestyle supplement that came with The Daily Mirror on Monday’s. Can anyone remember what it was called? I was obsessed with it. I would painstakingly absorb every inch of editorial for hours and hours. Literally – hours. In my head I would live out the lifestyle portrayed on those pages, contrasting starkly to the realities of my days spent in the classroom at school and then at sixth form. I envisioned that, when I was in my twenties (never in my thirties, too old…), I would buy a takeaway coffee on my way to work – a publishing house, newspaper or other arts organisation. I would be wearing a shift dress from Topshop, which would transition nicely when I met up with friends for post-work cocktails in a stylish bar, after which I would nip home to my fabulous flat in the city with a balcony.

And now here I am at 31, buying a takeaway coffee in the morning on my way to work at an arts organisation, wearing a shift dress, sometimes (but not as much as I used to) meeting with friends for post-work wine, and living in a city centre flat with a (sort of) balcony.

I should be bloody over the moon! I got what I wanted – so why am I still harbouring all these so-called lifestyle aspirations? It’s not like I’ve had the imagination to even generate new ones, not really. It’s the same meaningless things only on a bigger, more costly scale. I don’t just want any old coffee – I want the best coffee available, preferably organic. I’ve become complacent in my brilliant job. I want Reiss dresses instead of the H&M ones I can afford. Do you ever stop wanting things? I mean, it’s exhausting isn’t it?

It must be an addiction, this magazine consumption. You start to crave them as much as the things inside. It’s like by reading these things I am somehow living them a little bit. Of course, I’m not.

I am not jetting over to Fiji next week.

I am not planning a jaunt round Marylebone this weekend to peruse potential items for a room I’m ‘doing up’ in my Notting Hill townhouse.

I am not even able to justify buying a Smythson diary.

I know at the end of the day it’s just frivolous enjoyment and I should just stop over-analysing. Life needs more of the simple pleasures that looking at pretty stuff can offer. The escapism that comes from reading about things that just don’t matter. But it is niggling at me now that I’ve noticed it. I think I’m most worried that other people will think I actually want to be like these people who really do live out the lifestyle of Elle Decoration, with their bonkers staircases and friends who own top London restaurants. It all feels a bit ridiculous – a pointless, pretend world. I don’t want to be like that really.

At least, I don’t think I do…

P.S. One thing these magazines are an actual source of is absolutely brilliant gift ideas. So if you happen to know me, lucky you – you may not be sitting on a £25,000 art deco sofa suite the next time you come to visit, but you could have a really nice dinner plate coming your way this Christmas.

I always kill plants. It’s a real problem. A conundrum that genuinely boggles my mind – what am I doing wrong?

plant edited

Whenever I build up the courage to bring some plants or plowers home to nurture (this is rarely), some unconscious instinct must kick in and, despite reading the enclosed care instructions and actually following them (sometimes I even Google, just to be doubly sure), I am forced to watch the plants cruelly shrivel and die in record time. On some occasions only hours later. It’s very deflating. It doesn’t help that I name them (we miss you, Tree-bo).
We’re not talking cut flowers here – I am confident that they are notorious droopers. I mean real plants that come in pots and don’t look like much to start with.

Not only is all this very uneconomical in both money and energy spent, it is also a little worrying – what does it say about me? Am I unstable? Negligent? Irresponsible? I like to think I’m just keen – that it’s my enthusiasm that kills them (it’s fortunate I don’t want to bring children into the world isn’t it.)

Overall, my unsuccessful foray into gardening makes me feel incompetent, and embarrassed about my lifestyle generally. How embarrassing that I have managed to grow up into an adult who goes about life totally devoid of any skills, knowledge or real consciousness of the natural world.
I live very much indoors. As a self-confessed urbanite I am uncomfortable with ‘the outdoors’ unless it is pre-arranged, meticulously planned, not too sunny, and doesn’t last too long. I much prefer if I am enjoying it from the comfort of a car or boutique hotel. I hate this about me. My heritage has clearly gone to waste – my granddad was a keen gardener, and I have wonderful memories of the amazing garden he kept. Still to this day, his peas are the best I’ve ever tasted. My mom follows in this tradition too. My boss is a renowned horticulturalist for God’s sake! So – either I’m unwilling or unable to learn from these artisans. Which is it?
Well, I’ve certainly noticed I am becoming more interested in gardening and growing in recent years, in the cliched way that people do as they get older. Whilst I’m not going to rush out and buy the box set of The Good Life, I do find I care much more about what I eat now. Where it has come from and how it was grown. I am conscious about taking care of the world I live in, too  I find I want to make things (although I am yet to make anything at all from Kirstie Allsopp’s Craft book, nearly 12-months on…)

Perhaps it’s just my desire to produce kicking in, with an alternative (to children) version. The fact I’ve created this blog is already evidence of that shift in me http://booksbywomen.org/coming-back-to-writing/

So, while I am showing willing, it’s maybe time to strike while the iron is hot and get tips from these experts I have at my disposal. I should follow the lead of the men in my life, actually. My Dad is a vegetable grower now. And my boyfriend is growing chillies in the flat.
I’ll give it a shot. Not that we have a garden… I’ll grow basil or something. Make some space on the windowsill (bye, weird Ikea glass orb that is definitely not the vase I thought it was but in fact a totally useless object).
Wish me luck – or rather, wish the plants luck.

PS: One thing I do know about gardening is that I talk aloud to myself regularly, and so with the plants in earshot it is clear that the old wives tale can’t be true.

Something out of the ordinary happened the other day – I lost something.

I never lose things. I am just not one of those people. I am organised. Boring. You can rely on me in a scrape – I will have that emergency tissue in my handbag; I’ve got the map to the hotel; yes, I’ve got some suncream you can borrow; yes, I have the last train time written down in my pocket notebook.

I do not lose things. Well…apart from the time I lost my passport. Life lessons learned: 1. Don’t take your passport to a festival, even a non-camping one, and 2. Hairdressers are good people (one from the Regis salon in Debenhams found said passport and returned it to me. I went back there recently.

Ok, so I lost something once. Although, hang on…there was also that time I left an amazing paid of vintage driving gloves on the bus. I cried. Really (turns out there’s a helpline you can ring).

Ok, so I am not quite as organised as I thought I was three paragraphs ago. But I’m pretty ‘together’ most of the time. So you can imagine my anger and disappointment when, on the last short hurdle of my commute home – the number 50 bus, I realised…I had gone and lost my house keys.

It’s horrible that moment, isn’t it – you must have felt it at some point? That sinking realisation that your treasured possession is not in your pocket, at the bottom of your handbag, on the floor. This is an organised person’s worst nightmare – how could I be so careless, so unlike myself?

You see, I will freely admit that I am a control freak – I think all truly organised people are. We cannot escape from ourselves. Which is why I was so unhappy when, in that moment I knew my keys were gone, I surprised myself with how careless and unreliable I could actually be. The last thing I want is to be surprised with the hidden depths of my character –  I want to be in control of me.

But if we were to rewind to seven years ago, to when I lost the passport, it is a bit of a different story.

Of course, in that first moment of realisation there was the familiar panic / terror / rage-at-self for being so stupid. What if I had to leave the country? Or, more realistically, buy alcohol? But then once I knew my passport was safe in Debenhams, I let go a little and actually felt a bit pleased with myself. Proud, even.

Because when I was a teenager, being the organised one in my circle of friends always felt rather lack lustre, predictable. Dull. How I longed to be as carefree as they driving around late at night with boys they’d just met at MacDonalds, running off to the Welsh seaside on a whim, bunking off school, walking into an exam having done zero revision. It all came so naturally to them. It made them so appealing – sexy. There was nothing natural about me trying to climb onto a yacht late in the evening in Sandwell Valley Park, when I’d only (begrudgingly) agreed to go on a short walk.

And so as a young woman I found myself fighting against the organised streak in me, wishing I could be more like my more un-together, dishevelled friends.

But I’ve found that as you get older the tables turn. It’s funny – people actually want to be like you. Those same free spirits want to know how you manage to get through life with few dramas and disasters. “I don’t know how she does it.” You feel brilliant (until you are inevitably asked to organise a hen do.)

You find your opinion changes, too. No long longer is the total disorganisation of your friends endearing or jealousy-inducing – it is f***ing annoying. Even they are annoyed by it, too.

This, reader, is a certain sign you have become a ‘grown up’.

At the end of the day, that organised streak runs through you like a stick of rock. And if you break it, you breakdown. Having to sit outside your apartment building on a step like a cat, waiting for the other (responsible) key-holder to get home, is a low point in life.

It is no shameful thing to be the boring, organised one. But losing my keys has reminded me that I am indeed human, and still capable of surprising myself – even if I don’t like it.

P.S. A few days later I found the keys – in my desk drawer at work. I think I can actually remember placing them in there…thinking I lost something else last week – the plot.

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